About Mark

I wear a yellow hat.

OWIF Part 2: Function over form

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Link to Part 1.

***

The Oldsmobile Aurora squealed out in front of a pair of minivans as the POP POP of handguns erupted and faded behind us.  I stole a glance at the rearview mirror in time to see chaos, mass confusion, and people scattering in all directions.  A mass of police lights converged on the spot where the tall man and the cops had been standing, a fast convergence of red and blue and sirens, like the big bang played backwards through a movie reel.

I took my eyes off the mirror and put them back on the road.  My hands tightened over the steering wheel when I saw the mass of police lights in front of me; in my haze I wasn’t sure if it was the scene we had just left behind.  Had I circled around already?

It wasn’t; these police cars were parked and empty.  The cops that drove them there were gathered around a car on the shoulder, broken glass strewn all over the road and barricades.   The drivers side window was missing, but the driver wasn’t.  He was sitting in the front seat, slumped over the steering wheel.  I don’t know exactly what happened to him but the spray of blood all over the interior of the vehicle and the spider-shaped bullet holes on the windshield gave me a good guess.  The car was a dark green Oldsmobile Aurora, the identical twin of the car I was driving except that our car still had all its windows and I wasn’t carrying a pair of slugs in my head.

We cruised by, trying not to attract attention from the cops.  I don’t know why I ducked the cops; the proper thing to do would have been to pull over.  I didn’t know this kid, and I sure as hell didn’t want to be accused of kidnapping or being a part of whatever happened back there.

The girl was staring at my face, intent.  She watched my grimace as I stared at the police and emergency vehicles and must have picked up on my vibe. “Don’t stop here, I can’t stop here.”  Her voice was unsteady, but her stare wasn’t.

“We should stop, kid; these guys can help you.  They can take you back to your parents and keep you safe from that man with the gun.”

“No, they can’t.  No one can, anymore.”

I didn’t stop.  I drove for a couple of miles, brow as furrowed as could me.  I can’t stand silences, so I broke it.

“What do you want me to do, then?  Leave you at the CTA stop? I don’t have a gun and I don’t have a badge, kid.  You’re not safe with me.”

She had been looking out the window at the cold Chicago fall, and kept right on looking as she spoke. “I’m not safe anywhere.”

I felt drunk, which is odd because normally I’d feel scared or nervous, what with the gun fight and all.  “How old are you?  Nine?  Where should I take you?”

She sniffed, wiped her nose, and said, “I’m ten.  And my dad said that you’d take me to the meeting place.”

I turned the radio down, asked her to repeat what she said.  After she had, I said, “Dude, I don’t know your dad, and I don’t know what the meeting place is.”

She looked at me, startled. “But.  But.  Why did you pick me up?”

“I didn’t, you jumped in and then the bullets told me I should probably hit the gas.”

Tears started to well up under her eyes, but never quite formed fully. “I don’t understand, I don’t understand, I was supposed to go to the green Oldsmobile…”

“Yeah, probably,” I said, my hands fumbling for a cigarette I didn’t own for a smoke I’ve never had.  “And I’m guessing that the dude doing his best swiss cheese impression in the Oldsmobile we passed on the way out here was your ride.”

Now the tears started for real, great heaving sobs as we coasted down I-90 past the tire factories and industrial bakeries. She shuddered under her great oversized coat, and I I could do was offer her some napkins from a fast food joint I keep in the glove box.  She took them and blew her nose.  Damnation.  If my wife was here she’s know what to say; comforting the afflicted was always her thing.  I tried to dial her, but it went straight to voicemail.  She was still on the plane.

“Listen, kid,” I was going to say, “I’ll take you to the police station.  They’ll figure out what’s going on, and they’ll help you find you dad.”  I was going to say that, but I didn’t.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw, in the side mirror, a flash of light.  Not the insistent authority of a police car, but the light of a semi with its brights on, going way too fast.

“Oh crap,” was what actually came out of my mouth, as the red-and-rust Mack truck barreled down the right lane of the highway, past the surprised SUVs and sedans, and right into my car.

[end of part 2]

OWIF Part 1: Concrete movement

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

***

I dropped my wife off at the airport; the acid smell of jet fuel and coffee and travel drifted into the car as I watched her walk into the terminal.  She was wearing a coral-colored coat and towing a grey suitcase behind her.  As the electric door closed I realized I only know what the hell color “Coral” is because of her; without her it’s all just a faded orange.

I shifted the car, a dark green Oldsmobile Aurora, into gear, slid backward to avoid a Korean family saying their tearful goodbyes – talk soon, call when you arrive, let’s Skype, blah blah.  In this day and age there is no permanent goodbyes, no dock-of-Belfast, last-call-to-Ellis-Island, only a “we’ll video call when you get back home.”   They’ll talk soon, but when is the next time we’ll touch?  When I’ll smell your cologne, your perfume?

I turned on the radio, took a sip of coffee and started to list the day, the soft imperfect planning of everything I’m supposed to do for the day, a list that will be the standard by which I jusdge the worth of my day that night.  Did I pick up the dry cleaning?  Did I get that work done?  Did I finish the grading? The car moved forward past a rental company bus, dark green and covered in soot, when a bright blue flash caused me to slam the breaks and spill my coffee.

She was a kid, about eight or nine years old, and she dashed in front of the bus just as it was pulling out and avoiding getting hit just in time to slam into the right side of my car.  She was wearing a winter hat, grey and hand-knitted, and an coat that was so big on her I thought she didn’t have arms at first.  It was a mens coat, a blue coat from one of those companies that sells camping gear to city folk that plan to go camping but never do.  I was so startled I squeezed my coffee cup, leaving hot coffee all over my steering wheel.

It turns out she had arms, and she used them to cushion her as she ran into my passenger side door.  Her face was pale, like the blood had run out of it, and she stood there, frozen, staring into my car as the rental truck pulled away, the driving cursing at us.  It’s not my fault, I wanted to signal to the driver, I don’t know her.  I didn’t know enough sign language to convey such a complex thought, so I just flicked him off.

The girl, still stuck in time, stared into the car as the bus pulled away.  Behind the bus was a man in a large black trenchcoat, short cropped hair and arms so long they extended past the sleeves of his coat by three or four inches.  He was tall, about six foot three or so, and as he looked in our direction he furrowed his brow, confused, for just a split second.

In his left hand he pulled up a walkie-talkie, and barked angrily into it.  I couldn’t make out what he said, as the windows were up and the radio was on, but by the expression on his face I could tell that he heard something back that he didn’t want to hear. He pulled his right hand out of his pocket; in it was a small pistol, like the kind that are often lighters and picked up as novelties by people in Las Vegas.

He pointed the pistol at me, no, no, not at me, at the kid, and yelled something in a language I don’t know, but the internal rosetta stone told me that he was yelling “Stop.”

The little girl turned around towards him, huge coat dangling off her like an poorly planned halloween costume.  They faced each other for what felt like, what, five seconds?  A minute?  Then the airport police started yelling.

There were four or five of them, running out of the terminal.  Shouting by airport cops is not unusual; it is in fact more weird to see an airport cop calming smiling.  These guys were not calmly doing anything – they were in full sprint towards the tall man.  As he turned he head to look at them the girl whirled around, pulled enough of the sleeves of her coat up to expose a little hand, then opened the car door and jumped in.

I confess I didn’t know what to say or do.  When unusual things happen we freeze, not necessarily out of cowardice but often out of confusion.  There is a buffering time when you put a new DVD into a player, or when you load a new video from the internet.  That was me; I was buffering.

“Drive,” she said, “please drive.”  Control-Alt-Delete.

I drove.  The sound of gunshots trailed off behind us.

 

[end of part 1]

[link to part 2]

Born to Run: Why Political Candidates Roll Out the Rockers at Election Time

Bruce Springsteen Campaigning for Barack Obama

Bruce Springsteen Campaigning for Barack Obama

This is a guest post by the always awesome Kyle Schmitt. He can be reached by emailing the moderator of this blog here.

Running neck-and-neck with Governor Mitt Romney just days before the 2012 election, President Barack Obama brought out the big guns for his final campaign rallies. To help make the case for a second term, the Commander-in-Chief turned to the Boss.

Obama campaigned with Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and other musicians during the campaign’s final week. These artists performed their songs in front of thousands of the President’s supporters in the crucial swing states that decided the election. Running to unseat Obama, Romney enlisted Kid Rock, Lee Greenwood, and the Marshall Tucker Band to play his closing campaign events.

Romney and Meatloaf: Both flavorless

Romney and Meatloaf: Both flavorless

But why campaign with a bunch of long-hairs when you’re running for leader of the free world? Why would Obama and Romney choose musicians as their advocates instead of business moguls like Warren Buffett or Donald Trump, superstar athletes, or even other entertainers with pop culture appeal? It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, as the Rolling Stones have reminded us for almost 40 years. But not only do voters like it, they may cast their votes based on their favorite singers’ support for their candidates of choice. This devotion led to numerous musicians being welcomed onstage to boost rally attendance and fire up the candidates’ supporters ahead of an election that appeared too close to call until the very end. Here’s how the recording artists who appeared with Obama and Romney helped rock the vote.

’Cause I’m Proud to be an American – The right campaign song can serve as the perfect theme for a candidate’s vision, as well as the American attributes they claim as their own. Springsteen’s anthem “We Take Care of Our Own” provides a powerful defense of the social welfare system and Obama’s oft-repeated Twitter statement that, “We’re all in this together.” Over a pounding drumbeat and triumphant guitar, he challenges the nation to stand up for those he believes have been left defenseless and destroyed by the recession. These lyrics provide implicit support not only for specific measures such as the President’s call to extend unemployment benefits, but his campaign’s cornerstone promise to serve as a champion for the country’s middle-class.

On the Republican side, Romney supporter Trace Adkins promoted a more libertarian viewpoint when performing “Tough People Do”. This defiant country song contains the lyric, “Tough people pull themselves up by the bootstraps when they hit hard luck”, and can be read as a conservative indictment of the government-funded bailouts and other perceived Washington excesses of the past five years. Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and Kid Rock’s song “Born Free” make use of religious and patriotic imagery, with Rock vowing, “I will bow to the shining sea / and celebrate God’s grace on thee.” These songs touched a chord with the Republican base, which is heavily Christian and places a premium on love of country.

Wilco, with President Obama for scale.

Wilco, with President Obama for scale.

Reaching out, touching me… – Associating with the right musicians can also boost candidates’ appeal to voters they need to win an election, a truth demonstrated in Obama’s choice of campaign performers. Springsteen was deployed to Rust Belt events, where his connection to middle-class white Americans would theoretically lead to greater support for the President among these voters. Obama utilized musicians to reach out to numerous favorable voting groups and enhance his preexisting support from these demographics. His campaign rallies featured the Spanish-language band Maná, hip-hop icon Jay-Z, and pop sensation Katy Perry. These performers helped the President’s campaign to successfully target Hispanic voters (a group Obama won 71% of), black voters (93%), and 18-29-year-old voters (60%).

Both candidates benefitted from campaigning with musicians whose dedicated fanbases connect with their artistic merits as well as their personal backgrounds. Romney worked to shore up his own working-class credentials and appeal to rural voters by appearing with Michigan native Kid Rock and Trace Adkins, a lifetime member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Obama attempted to turn the personal narratives of Springsteen and Jay-Z to his advantage, telling supporters at a November 5 rally in Ohio that “both of them tell an American story.” He further linked himself to Jay-Z, who is married to pop star Beyoncé Knowles and holds the Billboard 200 record for most #1 albums by a solo act musician, by noting that “both of us now have daughters … and both of us have wives who are more popular than we are.”

Get on your feet – Enthusiasm is paramount to turning out voters and bringing in volunteers, especially during the campaigns’ all-important Get Out the Vote timeframe. This critical juncture takes place during the four-day period prior to the election when campaigns shift into overdrive to contact all potential voters and get them to the polls. And at a time when campaign volunteers may be weary from canvassing door-to-door (and voters tired of their constant visits), live music provides a welcome jolt of adrenaline to all involved in the political process.

Perhaps no performance was more emblematic of this excitement than Kid Rock standing on a piano this past election eve and belting out the soulful vocals of “Born Free” before a New Hampshire audience of 12,000 people. Obama leveraged the same dynamic when he brought in Dave Matthews to headline a sold-out Virginia amphitheater event November 3. But the motivating factor of live music was never clearer than when the legendary Stevie Wonder played an unannounced concert for Clevelanders standing in line for early voting that same day. His impromptu performance provided extra incentive for these voters to brave the long lines for hours and make their voices heard.

All together now – No matter how strident the song, campaign music rarely turns into attacks on fellow Americans who share different political beliefs. And for good cause: no campaign wants a belligerent message that will turn off independent voters. This policy seems to extend to candidate-affiliated musicians’ comments off-stage, for reasons not limited to the threat of alienating fans and losing record and ticket sales. Even after endorsing the President, Springsteen still made time to speak (via telephone aboard Air Force One) with devoted E Street fan and Republican National Convention keynote speaker Governor Chris Christie. Kid Rock breached the partisan gap the hard way when he ran into Obama at an event just weeks after the November election. He said the President reminded him, “I’m still here,” which he recalled acknowledging while laughingly retelling the encounter. Kid Rock went on to call for Americans to support their country and wished the President good luck in resolving the nation’s challenges. If politicians and musicians, even the self-designated Devil Without a Cause, can reconcile after an election, surely their supporters can come together right now.

Weirdos from Another Planet strike again: Mars Rover successfully fires laser on Mars, vaporizes rock.

NASA’s work makes me squeal with joy

Curioislity, the Mars rover successfully placed on the red planet by NASA, has successfully deployed its ChemCam laser to vaporize a rock in order to test the rock’s chemistry.

This is a victory by a large number of people from NASA and from partner organizations, but my favorite reaction so far has been from Kelkulus, who tweeted:

I’m reminded of the Calvin and Hobbes strip from Weirdos from Another Planet:

Bill Watterson is always right.

The monster is always us.  Which is awesome.

Blood Donation

Blood donation worker [reading from script]: Have you taken any medication not prescribed by a doctor in the last eight weeks?

Me: Uh, I took some orthotricyclen once.

Her: …that’s birth control.

Me: Yeah.

Her: Why would you take that?!

Me: It was for a dare.

Her: Don’t take medication on a dare anymore.

Me: But it did clear up my acne…

***

Donate blood to Lifesource (Chicago Area) or the American Red Cross (Nationalwide)

 

EDIT: spelling

Blind cave salamander lives to 100, is worried about Romney/Ryan cuts to Medicare

“Atreyuuuuuuu”

Ok, the title is kind of a cheap shot, so let me summarize what follows: party nominees can be a bit like blind salamanders.  I can’t promise that that sentence will make any more sense at the end of this essay, but here goes.

The Olm is a blind cave salamander that lives in Slovenia and Croatia; the cool part of the linked Discover article is that it does seem to have a possible lifespan of about 100 years.  What’s interesting about the olm for the sake of this discussion is that its blindness is a secondary characteristic, what evolutionary biologists call a “derived trait.”  The ancestors of the olm, just like the ancestors of other blind cave species (blind cave tetras, etc.) all had sight; the vision was lost later as an evolutionary development.

Loss of eyesight is believed to have occurred due to lack of advantage in keeping the very-complex mechanisms that allow sight maintained over generations; cave salamanders that had good sight had no advantage over cave salamanders that had terrible vision, so over time the maintenance of a high level of the trait was unnecessary.  If you have a hard time understanding that, I’ll put it this way: I have worn thick glasses since I was 10 years old.  If I had such terrible vision as a child 5,000 years ago, I probably would not have amounted to much except lunch for a predator.  As I am lucky enough to have been born in a developed country in the late 20th century, to parents that had a vision plan as part of their health insurance coverage, I can live, work, and eventually marry (two years ago today!) despite my awful eyesight.  If my children have terrible eyesight inherited through me, it will be because I (presumably) have other traits that outweigh the trait of bad vision, which is no longer as big of a handicap as it would have been 5K years ago.  Think of cave fish and other blind cave animals as the subterranean equivalent of thousands of years of Mark-breeding.

That is the weirdest sentence I have ever typed.

Anyway, in some conditions the loss of eyesight can be non-detrimental, as in the case of me.  In the case of the blind cave animals, it can be adaptive, as it can allow animals to select mates based on other, more cave-friendly traits.  I’ll provide one last analogy, this time from baseball’s designated hitter.

Edgar Martinez belongs in the Hall of Fame as much as a blind salamander

In the National League of U.S. baseball, every player in the lineup bats (offense) and every player in the lineup plays the field (defense).  Managers have to strike a balance by picking the lineup with the right mix of offense and defense.  Every player in the National League is evaluated in that fashion, including the pitcher.  The pitcher is often the worst batter on the team (but not always, Kerry Wood cough cough), he still has to take his swings at the plate.  Conversely, as a manager you may be hesitant to play a well-hitting but defensively atrocious player.  If, say, a possible first baseman is an amazing batter but cannot catch a ball to save his life, the manager may decide that the risk on defense is not worth the added chance of defensive errors from that player.

The American League uses a different system, in that teams there have what is called a designated hitter (DH).  The DH is a batter who takes the place of the pitcher, so the typically-worst hitter is no longer in the offense.  The DH hits but does not take the field; he does not play defense at all.  Thus, in the American League, managers can set a lineup without having to include one player in the defensive calculus at all; the manager is free to select one good hitter without constraint of that player’s fielding at all.

This creates a scoring advantage for the American League in comparison to the National League; in 2011 alone American League teams scored  723 runs to the National League’s 668.  This scoring difference in favor of AL teams is pretty consistent over the last few years; by not having to worry about how the pitcher is hitting, teams with DH’s can devote more resources (line up spots) to other, more offensively-minded, players.

Similarly, the cave fish and salamanders lose their sight in part because individuals (the unit of selection) that don’t expend energy on maintaining eyesight may have moved those resources to other traits that are better for surviving and reproducing in a cave, like hearing or smell.  Over generations, these traits may multiply; good vision may become less and less important without any external need to have it.

What does this have to do with politics?

Like primary politics, but less messy

The American political system at the presidential level is two headed: there is a primary election and a general election.  The standard canard is that this creates more extreme candidates.  The thinking goes that the primaries are voted on by stalwarts, hard-liners in each party, and this tends to create more extreme candidates that then have to moderate their positions in the general election.

I don’t disagree with this line of thinking, but I found myself wondering WHY we ended up with such moderates in the last few election cycles as John McCain, John Kerry, Mitt Romney (he WAS a moderate in 2008, remember) and Barack Obama (he IS a moderate, moreso than a Barney Frank or a Kirsten Gillibrand).  If the idea that we get extreme nominees from the primary system is true, wouldn’t that have given us more fire breathing candidates than the ones we’ve had?

To be sure, in Congress the primaries give some real foot soldiers for both parties, but at the presidential level we’ve gotten, well, Romney and Kerry.  I have a theory: the trait that gets you out of the primaries at the presidential level is perceived electability rather than by substantive agreement with policies or personality.

Perceived electability is the nebulous factor that causes people to say “I don’t like him/her, but he/she is better than Bush/Obama.”  The candidate that seems most mushily in the middle tends to get the nomination in the last few elections.  Even Obama, who some called “the most liberal senator” was considered electable compared to Hilary Clinton.  As experienced and formidable as Clinton was, she carried large negatives that made a lot of Democrats that agreed with her in substance shrink away from the thought of defending her the general.  The perception of electability is why Kerry beat liberal screamer Howard Dean, why McCain beat a pile of more conservative candidates, and why Romney emerged victorious over <shudder> Rick Santorum; the other guys were thought to have less of a chance than the eventual victors.

Walk left side, safe; walk right side, safe. Walk middle, get squish just like grape.

This raises the question: thought by whom?  The answer is, of course, primary voters (influenced by media, endorsements, etc.).  Primary voters have been voting against candidates they may have preferred in order to vote for “moderate” candidates they dislike that they think the other side may find more palatable.  “Mitt Romney is the dog with the least fleas.”  It is the election equivalent of dating someone your parents like instead of the person you yourself like; sure, you’d prefer someone else, but at least this person won’t be as bad as having no date.

Back to the cave fish: maybe we’ve unmoored the need have a candidate who has substance that we like from the need to have a candidate that is electable, maybe we care about vision less than beating the other party.  Perhaps perceived electability is what parties choose (Romney, Kerry) over candidates that have concrete proposals that are then open to criticism.  Maybe we occasional choose blind salamanders precisely because they have less of a record of leadership.

The blind salamanders and the electorate have one thing in common: neither can see Romney’s tax returns.